Scholars call for “freedom” in academia

By Kimberly Sutton

Rockefeller Chapel was filled to capacity Friday as around 1,500 gathered for the much-anticipated convening of several prominent scholars whose views on politics and American policy have propelled them to the forefront of a recent debate about freedom and censorship in the academic world.

Tariq Ali, editor of New Left Review and Verso Books, moderated the conference at which Noam Chomsky, John Mearsheimer, Norman Finkelstein, and several others delivered addresses decrying recent developments that have, in the speakers’ views, imperiled the freedom of academics to produce candid scholarship free from the pressures of external interests.

The most prominent of these interests confronted during Friday’s panel presentations was the Israel lobby, which several of the speakers criticized for having an alleged chilling effect on academic discourse over its influence on American foreign policy.

“This is where we stand, and this is what we are going to defend,” Ali said in his opening remarks, responding to the recent tenure denials of DePaul University professors Finkelstein and Mehrene Larudee. Nearly all of the speakers Friday made at least passing mention of the controversy that embroiled Finkelstein earlier this year.

Finkelstein, whose work criticizes the United States’s relationship with the Israel lobby, was thrust into the national spotlight this June when DePaul denied him tenure. He mounted a vocal campaign against the university’s administration, vowing to go on a hunger strike to bring attention to the situation. The ordeal ended after Finkelstein resigned and negotiated an undisclosed settlement. Some observers have said that Larudee, a major Finkelstein supporter, was denied tenure because of her association with him.

In his speech, John Mearsheimer, a political science professor at the U of C, attempted to dismantle DePaul’s case against Finkelstein. Mearsheimer came out as an ardent supporter of Finkelstein’s tenure bid during the proceedings earlier this year and recently co-authored a controversial book examining the Israel lobby.

He also addressed the politics of Finkelstein’s denial, painting academia as the only space where Israel is “treated as a normal country, where past and present actions are critically assessed,” and the place where public opinion on the matter is most accurately reflected.

In Mearsheimer’s speech, as well as in panel responses to audience questions, the U of C was held up as an example of an institution that embraced the flourishing of unrestricted discourse.

For his part, Finkelstein defended his creative rights as a scholar, conceding only that his writing style could be considered inflammatory. But he defended his right to use polemics when merited by the situation, citing Marx’s appellation of his fellow economists, and denied allegations of faulty scholarship.

Noam Chomsky, Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, addressed the packed cathedral via video conference because of family circumstances that prevented him from traveling to Chicago. Chomsky outlined a constellation of forces gathering against academic freedom with the aim of justifying controversial American policies and accused institutions that bend to external political pressure of “conformist subservience to those in power.”

Chomsky, along with fellow panelist Akeel Bilgrami of Columbia University, highlighted Columbia president Lee Bollinger’s allegedly politicized and disparate treatments of controversial visiting heads of state. Bollinger largely praised Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf during his visit to the university, but vocally criticized Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he spoke earlier this month.

Tony Judt, director of the Remarque Institute at New York University, spoke of academia’s duty to defend the scholarly freedom of professors who depend on it for a living. He contrasted the present situation with an earlier era when a requisite for the public intellectual was independent scholarship and identified the top threat to academic integrity as self-censorship for fear of job security.

According to Judt, the Israel lobby is an especially dangerous one because it seeks to further its own ends while attempting to silence discussion by denying its own existence. This, Judt argued, is fundamentally contrary to the elementary principle of free academic discourse.

Neve Gordon, of Israel’s Ben-Gurion University, and Columbia University’s Akeel Bilgrami also appeared at the Rockefeller symposium.

Correction: The October 16, 2007 article “Scholars Call for ‘Freedom’ in Academia” incorrectly stated that DePaul University decided to deny Norman Finkelstein tenure, “citing outside pressure.” In fact, in a June 2007 statement, DePaul University president Dennis Holtschneider said that the decision was made independent of outside pressure.